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Pilots N Paws


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Published: Sep 27, 2012 07:22 PM
Modified: Sep 27, 2012 07:24 PM
Sammy, a 90-pound yellow Labrador retriever with a broad head and a busy tail, lived in his forever home for nearly six years – until the baby came.

Sammy, 6, greets volunteer Pilot N Paws pilot Rick Gutlon. Becky Davis, right, says her final goodbye to her dog at an airport in Smithfield. Sammy and two other dogs were transported from Smithfield to New Hampshire via Gutlon and two other pilots he met through the Pilots N Paws network. The dogs were taken to a New Hampshire rescue shelter, where they will be kept until they are adopted.

Someone dropped off Tucker and Jasmine, two black Lab puppies, at the Wayne County animal shelter about two months ago.

On the second Sunday in September, the three dogs waited at a Smithfield airport for a plane to fly them to a new chance.

Durham resident Rick Gutlon would fly the first leg of the 525 nautical mile journey from Smithfield to New Hampshire. He is one of about 3,000 pilots in 49 states who volunteer for the Pilots N Paws network, which has transported more than 10,000 rescue animals since the South Carolina-based nonprofit was founded in 2008.

Pilots and rescue organizations meet and organize trips through pilotsnpaws.org in an effort to move dogs and cats facing euthanasia to homes and shelters that have room.

The Humane Society of the United States estimates U.S. animal shelters care for 6 to 8 million dogs and cats every year; about half are euthanized.


This weekend, pilots and other volunteers plan to participate in Pilots N Paw’s fourth annual rescue flyaway. The event aims to raise awareness and to relocate about 300 North Carolina dogs to shelters and fosters from Florida to New Jersey and Ohio.

An early start

For Gutlon, the Sept. 9 trip started with weather updates at 4 a.m.

By 7:15 a.m. Gutlon had prepared, loaded and pulled his four-seater plane from its shelter at Lake Ridge Airport on East Geer Street near Falls Lake.

The 1964 Cessna 172 Skyhawk’s blue stripes on the white plane were polished and its windshield cleaned. Gutlon taxied the plane to a smooth take off from a bumpy grass runway to head toward Johnston County.

“The air is smooth as silk,” he said.

About 30 minutes later, Gutlon landed in Smithfield, where Sammy, Tucker and Jasmine waited in the parking lot.

Sammy’s owner Sandy Davis’ face was wet with tears. “It is very complicated for us,” said Davis, who had Sammy and two other dogs when she gave birth to a son in April. “We had more on our plate than we could handle.”

Since the baby was born, Davis said she and her husband couldn’t give the dogs as much attention as they needed.

Sammy, who takes medication to prevent seizures, needed more exercise. He started causing problems, such as getting into the trash and snapping at another dog, she said. For months Davis said she unsuccessfully searched for a place to surrender him.

“No thanks,” she was told again and again.

When Davis surrendered another dog back to the Johnston County Animal Protection League, representatives connected her to Joy Frannicola, who along with her husband runs a dog rescue operation at their Ruff Creek Ranch in Smithfield. Through Pilots N Paws, Frannicola has established a local network of pilots who regularly shuttle north the adoptable dogs she and others identify in local shelters.

Joy Frannicola, left, and Rick Gutlon walk out to Gutlon’s plane in Smithfield with Sammy. Sammy and two other dogs were transported from Smithfield to a rescue shelter in New Hampshire via Gutlon and two other pilots who met through the Pilots N Paws network.

“(Sammy) has two strikes against him. His age and his medical condition,” Frannicola said. “Luckily, I have contacts.”

One of the contacts, Lisa Borst, with Rosemont Labradors in Hinsdale, N.H., has helped Frannicola place more than 100 dogs, Frannicola said.

Buying time

After Jasmine and Tucker were dropped off at the Wayne County shelter in Goldsboro, a shelter worker found a foster home for the lab puppies – which had worms and were missing hair around their eyes and feet — to buy some time for the dogs to get into adoptable shape.

Sammy hangs out in the back seat of the plane on his way from Smithfield to Virginia.

The Wayne County animal shelter has a policy to euthanize dogs and cats after 14 days. Shelter director Vicki Falconer said they only euthanize animals if the shelter is full, and the animals who have been there the longest are pulled first.

In the last six months, the shelter has taken in 3,460 dogs and cats and euthanized 1,868.

At the airport, Jasmine and Tucker were placed in a crate in the back of the Gutlon’s plane. Sammy was hooked to a leash in the back seat.

Gutlon taxied the plane to another smooth take off headed towards West Point, Va.

Gutlon started flying in 2006, chasing a boyhood fascination with planes and flying. In March 2011 he enlisted himself and his plane, nicknamed Bella, in the Pilots N Paws mission to find homes for homeless dogs. He has since flown 23 rescue flights and transported 57 dogs.

Sandy Davis carries Jasmine to a crate in Pilots N Paws volunteer pilot Rick Gutlon’s plane. Gutlon holds the door open on left. Sammy and two other dogs were transported from Smithfield to a rescue shelter in New Hampshire via Gutlon and two other pilots who met through the Pilots N Paws network.

“It really gives you a mission for flying instead of going out for the $100 hamburger,” said Gutlon, an Information Technology consultant.

His four-legged passengers have included a mom and seven puppies; Rhodesian Ridgebacks; and a Dalmatian named Dolly, who was found outside a church with cigarette burns on her paws.

“I swear she absolutely knew we were there to save her,” Gutlon said.

Hard to say goodbye

Sammy didn’t seem to mind the plane ride. He panted a bit and slowly worked his head between the two front seats, looking for some love and reassurance from Gutlon.

“I have this wet nose right on my elbow,” Gutlon said. “It’s going to be hard to say goodbye to this fellow.”

Turning to the dog, as much as possible in the small plane, he said, “What are we going to do with you?”

After a couple of hours, Gutlon landed and met Terry Friedman, 65, of New Jersey, and his “co-pilot/dog wrangler” Frank DiGennaro at a West Point, Va., airport.

“Looks like you’ve got a friend, Rick,” said Friedman, as he opened Gutlon’s door to help Sammy out of the plane.

“This is one of those trips where you know we saved a dog,” Gutlon said.

“It’s always like that,” Friedman said.

The dogs got a short walk and were loaded into two crates in Friedman’s Piper Saratoga.

Mike Wilt, a 49-year-old engineer who lives in New Hampshire, met Friedman and the dogs at an Old Bridge, N.J., airport around 1:30 p.m. Wilt flew the dogs to Keene, N.H.

“It was pretty uneventful,” he said about the flight.

Lisa Borst picked up the three dogs in Keene around 3 p.m. and drove them about 30 miles to her home in Hinsdale on a half-acre with a fenced in yard. New Hampshire requires the dogs to be quarantined for 48 hours, which Borst does at her facility, also called Rosemont Labradors.

As of Friday, the dogs hadn’t been adopted, but they were adjusting to their new home. Families come from New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts, seeking a four-legged member to add to their household.

“We have a significantly low number of stray dogs,” she said. “Zero to one percent.”

Tucker and Jasmine are adjusting to a life where they are welcomed by humans, Borst said.


“Tucker is already learning that, yes, you can come in the house. No one will yell at you,” Borst said. “I try to integrate them into the house because that builds value to an adopting family.”

Sammy prefers fetch over tag, and has been sunbathing, chewing on sticks and practicing his leash skills walking around the neighborhood.

“Right now he is really jealous because another dog has his ball that he wants me to throw for him,” she said.

Bridges: 919-564-9330


  1. Jeff says:

    Way to go Rick!

  2. Betsye Broyles says:

    Very touching story! I’m in love with this dog! What a fantastic program you are running! I’m a major animal lover..grew up on a tobacco farm in Crewe,VA where parents had over a hundred acre farm…I fell in love with animals at a very young age…we had horses, cows, chickens, goats, cats…and of course dogs! I would love to be involved with this program!!! You may contact me at 804-543-6100…I live in Mechanicsville, VA…about 30 minutes from W. Point. I just learned about this program on the today show & was blown away!!! We currently have 2 mixed labs/chows dogs that we rescued from the humanine society after hurricane isabel came thru VA…fantastic dogs…would love more labs looking for a new welcome home…we’ve got about 1.5 acreas for them to enjoy!!! I look forward to chatting with you…and would love to assist on rescue missions! I’m semi retired & have time to dedicate!!!

    Animal Lover,
    Betsye Broyles

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